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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Denver Versus Miami Preview

NBA Finals

Denver (51-31) vs. Miami (44-38) 

Season series: Denver, 2-0

Miami can win if…Jimmy Butler is "Playoff Jimmy," and if the Heat collectively can counteract Denver's superior individual talent.

Butler averaged 24.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 6.2 apg, and 2.5 spg in the Eastern Conference Finals as the Heat defeated the Boston Celtics in seven games. He won the second annual Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP. Butler has led the eighth seeded Heat to a 13-6 playoff record in 2023 while averaging 28.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 5.7 apg, and 2.1 spg. The Heat defeated the top two seeds (Milwaukee and Boston) to win the Eastern Conference.

Caleb Martin has quickly elevated himself from undrafted player struggling to stay in the league to solid rotation player to key contributor who was one vote away from winning the Eastern Conference Finals MVP. Martin averaged 18.2 ppg and 5.8 rpg in the Eastern Conference Finals while leading the Heat with 18 three point field goals made. Overall, he ranks third on the Heat in playoff scoring (14.1 ppg), fourth in rebounding (5.7 rpg), third in three point field goals made (39), and second in three point field goal percentage (.438) among Heat players who have attempted at least one three pointer per game during the postseason. 

Two-time All-Star (2020, 2023) Bam Adebayo ranks second on the team in playoff scoring (16.8 ppg), first in rebounding (9.2 rpg), and fourth in assists (3.8 apg). He is a 6-9 center who neither posts up much nor shoots many three pointers, but who provides value as an all-around player. Adebayo gives up a lot of size to Nikola Jokic; he will not be able to match Jokic's statistics or impact, but it will be vital for the Heat that Adebayo makes Jokic work at both ends of the court.

Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra is more than living up to his status as one of the 15 greatest coaches in NBA history. His teams are consistently well-prepared, focused, and tough-minded.

Denver will win because…Nikola Jokic is the best player in the NBA, and he will be the best player in this series. Jokic outdueled Top 75 players LeBron James and Anthony Davis as the Nuggets swept the L.A. Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Jokic earned the second annual Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP after averaging 27.8 ppg, 14.5 rpg, and 11.8 apg with shooting splits of .506/.471/.778. Jokic and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in NBA playoff history who averaged a triple double in multiple series in the same postseason. Overall, Jokic is averaging 29.9 ppg, 13.3 rpg, and 10.3 apg in the playoffs, leading the Nuggets in all three categories while also leading the Nuggets in field goal percentage (.538), three point field goal percentage (.474), and blocked shots (.9 bpg). He ranks fourth in the NBA in 2023 playoff scoring, second in rebounding, first in assists, and 10th in three point field goal percentage. Jokic may not be a great one on one defender, but his size and savvy enable him to be a solid team defensive player.

Jamal Murray is having an outstanding postseason, ranking ninth in the league in scoring (27.7 ppg) with shooting splits of .480/.398/.925. He ranks first on the team in steals (1.7 spg) and second in assists (6.1 apg) as he continues to prove that his great playoff performance in 2020 was not "Bubble Murray" but rather "Playoff Murray."

The Nuggets' supporting cast is maligned at times because the team generally performs so much better with Jokic on the court than when Jokic is off of the court, but Denver is far from being just a two-player team. Michael Porter Jr. (14.6 ppg), Aaron Gordon (13.0 ppg), Bruce Brown (12.2 ppg), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (11.7 ppg) are all double figure scorers who are shooting least .455 from the field in the playoffs. 

The Nuggets' defense does not look overpowering statistically, but the Nuggets get enough stops to support their elite level offense that ranks second in playoff scoring (116.4 ppg), second in field goal percentage (.490), second in three point field goal percentage (.386), and third in assists (25.9 apg). The Miami Heat zone that befuddled and flustered the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals is not likely to meet with similar success versus the Nuggets.

Other things to consider: The Nuggets have been underrated throughout the season. They posted the best record in the Western Conference, but the "experts" were skeptical that they could beat the Phoenix Suns or the L.A. Lakers, two media darlings who had no answers for Jokic, Murray, and company. The Boston Celtics called this season "Unfinished Business," the Golden State Warriors acted like they could just flip a switch to relive past glory, and the Milwaukee Bucks expected to party like it's 2021--but the Lakers, Suns, Celtics, Warriors, and Bucks will all be watching the Nuggets in the NBA Finals. 

Jokic's body type may not fit the preconceived notion of what an NBA superstar "should" look like, but he is a sublime scorer, rebounder, and passer. His defense is not great, but it is good enough, and his team follows his lead in that regard.

The Heat have had a great and remarkable playoff run, but up to this point their main obstacles have been a hobbled Giannis Antetokounmpo, a game but undersized Jalen Brunson, and a one-legged Jayson Tatum in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. They have not had to deal with anyone like Jokic, and they lack the size to do so effectively. Murray is a more dynamic guard than anyone the Heat have faced in the playoffs. 

The Heat will fight until the end. They will win a couple games, possibly including one in Denver. They will never give up, and they will remain confident without being obnoxious. However, they will not win this series.

I predict that the Nuggets will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:03 AM



At Wednesday, May 31, 2023 7:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Denver in 6 is the smart pick, though we never know until they play the games. Big uphill climb for Miami


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